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Long lines at DMV offices persist; unclear when delays will end

Long Islanders are waiting in hourslong lines, weeks after the state allowed immigrants living in the country without legal permission to apply for driver’s licenses, as seen at the Medford and Hauppauge DMV locations on Monday. (Credit: Newsday / Cecilia Dowd, Chris Ware)

It took Mary Sullivan and her teenage son three hours to move about 100 feet in the line outside the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Hauppauge on Thursday.

And that was before they even got inside the office to continue the process of applying for 16-year-old Sean Sullivan’s driver’s permit.

“I want to scream,” Mary Sullivan, a Brightwaters resident, said around noon. “It’s just crazy.”

Three weeks after New York State started permitting immigrants living in the country illegally to apply for driver’s licenses under the so-called “Green Light Law,” long lines that snake around the outside of DMV offices persist — and there are few indications when they will end.

That is leaving more than a few  other residents frustrated. They say the DMV should have planned for the surge of immigrants applying for licenses — and that the onslaught is slowing down all operations at the department.

“It’s poorly handled. They should have foreseen this,” said Walter Vancura, 60, of Wading River, as he stood outside the DMV office in Medford on Thursday, hoping to get an “enhanced license” so he can go on vacation to Florida this month. “The actual handling of it is ridiculous.”

He had gone to the Riverhead office when the program first started, but the line outside in the rain that day was so long he just left — and decided to try on another day.

Some residents are more sanguine. “It’s not too bad,” said Bob Famulari, 58, of Holtsville, as he waited outside the Medford office. Still, he added, “I don’t know what’s inside.”

Since the program started Dec. 16, thousands of immigrants have flocked to DMV offices on Long Island, some arriving as early as 4 a.m. and waiting until the later afternoon to get their permits, according to immigrant advocates. Many are not bothered by the long waits, they added.

Many say “it doesn’t matter if I have to wait four or five hours [or more] on line. It’s the sacrifice I have to make to get a license,“ said Victoria Hernandez of the Latina immigrant advocacy group Sepa Mujer. “Waiting for five or six hours isn’t a lot, since we have waited ... years to get a license.”

Still, her group is encouraging immigrants to make an appointment for their permit test, and is holding an information session this Thursday at 6 pm. at its 45 Oak St. headquarters in Patchogue.

DMV officials say they are doing what they can to deal with the crowds.

“As expected, we continue to experience large crowds,” said Lisa Koumjian, a spokeswoman for the DMV.

She said the agency is taking steps to address the overflow lines such as adding reservation times, adjusting staff levels, and urging customers to use DMV kiosks or its website for any transactions that can be handled online.

Applicants can save time and avoid long lines by making an appointment online, and then showing up on the assigned day, Koumjian said.

But that is still not enough to ease the long waits at many DMV offices, residents said. At the Massapequa DMV offices on Thursday, security officers told people around lunchtime that permit applications were being cut off for the day because the facility was at capacity, and that no one else could join the already long line.

Sullivan said it was her second visit to the DMV to try to obtain her son’s permit. She took off from work last Tuesday afternoon, but the DMV office closed by 1 p.m., she said.

On Thursday, she took the entire day off from her job in the state court system. “It’s not how I envisioned my day off,” she said, adding she had another son home sick with the flu.

She recalled that when she had gone with her oldest son a couple of years ago for his permit, “I was here for 15 minutes, in and out.”

Koumjian said the state is trying to ease the pain by having staff offer study guides, forms and other helpful information to people while they wait in line to make sure things go smoothly once they get inside.

They also offer to make reservations for people who want to come back at a later date.

Some 15 states now grant driver’s licenses to immigrants lacking legal status.

Immigrant advocacy groups say they are trying to get the word out to misinformed immigrants on Long Island that there is no deadline to apply for a license, and there is no limit on the number that will be granted. Many thought there were, and are rushing to apply, Hernandez said. 

Sepa Mujer is getting so many phone calls about the program  that the group had to bring in three volunteers to help handle the calls, and set up a special hotline number.

But little of it is helping resolve the situation, according to many residents.

“I think that the lawmakers passed this law and then did not prepare the DMV for the surge,” said Nicholas Orlando, 39, a Copiague resident who needed two hours for a routine transaction at the Massapequa office. “Another case in which the state dropped the ball.”

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